Wolfgang Scherreiks with his English-made Pashley Guv’nor.
It’s ironic that I’ve written dozens of articles about efforts to make Chicago more like the bike-friendly cities of northern Europe, but until recently I’d never actually been to any of these places. Last month I finally made the trip across the pond to check out bike facilities in Berlin, Copenhagen and several towns in the Netherlands.
It was inspiring to experience places where cycling, walking and transit are given at least as much respect as driving, with the result being livable, vibrant cities. During the trip I met up with various transportation advocates and bloggers to pick their brains about the local cycling scene, in hopes of gleaning ideas for Chicago.
Curbside bike lane near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.
Berlin was the first stop on my trip. When I unboxed my bicycle at the airport and pedaled into the city center it was thrilling to take my first ride in a European metropolis with a higher bike mode share than Portland, Oregon (10% versus 6.5%). On the other hand, bike use in Berlin is a only a fraction of that in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, so the German capital was a good place to get acclimated before experiencing Bicycle Heaven in the Danish and Dutch cities.
Near the end of my Berlin visit I interviewed Wolfgang Scherreiks, a freelance writer who blogs about bike culture and style at fahrradjournal (“bicycle journal”), at a café next to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing between West Berlin and East Berlin during the Cold War. Wolfgang also interviewed me about Chicago for his site.
Buffered bike lane in Berlin.
How would you characterize biking in Berlin – is it a good place for biking?
I think Berlin is a good town to ride a bike. It´s a green city. We have a great urban bicycle culture in the center districts like Kreuzberg, Mitte or Friedrichshain, and traditionally a more sporty style of cycling in western districts like Charlottenburg or Zehlendorf. You can’t compare it with the great cycle cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. However, a lot has been done like introducing new bicycle lanes, shared bus lanes or bicycle priority streets.
I feel like I haven’t encountered a street here that isn’t comfortable to ride on, where there isn’t some kind of accommodation for bikes, either a bike lane marked on the street or a side path. Is that pretty much true, or are there some streets in Berlin, besides expressways, where you would not want to ride a bike?
In some parts of the town, you have to know where the good biking streets are. If you are new in town, we have a reliable bike map here, the ADFC Fahrrad-Stadtplan Berlin, which shows the best routes and helps to avoid uncomfortable cycling. Because there are some roads where it’s indeed dangerous to ride in the street and people prefer riding on the side path.
Covered bike parking and side path by a transit station on the east side of town.
Does it get less bike-friendly when you get farther away from the center?
I wouldn’t say so. For example I’m living in Charlottenburg [west of the central city] and there we benefit from a lot of green space and parks that are good for biking.
In Chicago five or ten people get killed riding bikes per year. Do many people get killed riding bikes in Berlin? The two cities are roughly the same size [3.5 million people in Berlin versus 2.7 million in Chicago.]
The numbers of cyclists killed increased from 6 in 2010 to 11 in 2011. But it’s known that the number has gone up due to there being more cyclists on the streets, and the city government is concerned about that. But some people say that’s normal when the amount of people on bikes is rising, and after a while drivers will become more aware that there are bicycles everywhere, and then the numbers will go down.
A Berlin ghost bike memorial.
Is the city of Berlin doing a good job promoting bicycling or are there things you’d like to see done differently?
From what I could see so far, the vision is great, but the process of implementation needs energy, time and money. Earlier this year I talked to Burkhard Horn, from the Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment, Principle Affairs of Transport Policy. I asked for details about what’s coming next for cyclists. It wasn´t easy for him to answer. Berlin is kind of a poor city in terms of the city budget so they are very careful about spending money. They have many good ideas and plans but those plans might get cut out of the city budget. Therefore, what I really like to see is a clear statement, plus a reliable and detailed plan and without the typical supplement: but it all depends on the money.
In the media, we had a discussion about the so-called “Kampfradler,” the bicycle fighter. It means the one who just goes straight through lights and doesn’t care about any rules. More a story for the silly season (slow news season), I guess.
So they’re saying there’s a problem with lawless cyclists?
Some people claim, it was the German Federal Minister of Transport, Mr. Peter Ramsauer, who used the term for the first time. Let´s say, he made the word popular here. I think the Kampfradler-stereotype is more a projection than a reality. However, to me it seems that people care less about rules, both cyclists and drivers.
Anti-Kampfradler sign in the Mitte neighborhood – photo by ATM Gallery.
What I like about riding in Berlin so far compared to Chicago is it seems like everyone’s a little more relaxed and looking out for others. The drivers are looking for bicyclists before they turn right. Bicyclists who are riding on side paths on the sidewalk are riding slowly, watching out for pedestrians. Everyone’s expecting other users to be around so everyone’s proceeding pretty cautiously.
That’s why I like about visitors; they see things from a fresh perspective.
Do you guys have Critical Mass here? You guys have the Star Ride here right?
That’s a very big ride every June. People say it’s the biggest in the world. [Up to 250,000 cyclists depart from various parts of town and converge in the city center.] It’s a beautiful thing because then you can see everybody riding together: families on bikes, children on bikes and so-called hipsters. But I don’t like that word “hipster.” When I was young, I read books from Jack Kerouac. I think when he used the word “Hipster” he referred to a different type and style.
Well, nobody likes to admit they’re a hipster. But I see lots of people in Berlin that if I saw them back in Chicago I’d classify them as hipsters. One thing, though, is that hipsters are heavily associated with fixed-gear bikes and those seem to be in the minority here. You see a lot more people on Dutch-style bikes here.
That depends on the area. There are a lot of fixies in Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer Berg [bohemian neighborhoods of Berlin.] So what I like about the Star Ride is that all of these different scenes come together, and though the ride can be very hot and crowded people are very relaxed. Furthermore, you can legally ride on the highway that day. That’s a special thing.
One of the starting points for the Star Ride – photo by Toolmantim.
In Chicago, Critical Mass sometimes goes on highways but it’s not legal.
Sounds a bit dangerous to me.
So what is bike fashion like in Berlin? It seems like people tend to be very well-dressed here. It seems like nobody puts on special clothes to go bicycling, and most people don’t wear helmets.
Bike fashion is a growing thing, especially for the bike-to-work commuters. And I’m seeing more people wearing helmets lately. To speak frankly – nobody really needs to get dressed to experience the joy of cycling.
What the best thing about bicycling in Berlin?
It’s a beautiful town and bicycling is the best way to get around. If you take the underground there’s too much stress. If you drive a car there’s stress too. So biking a very relaxing way to travel. And if you know where to go it’s a very green city. I often ride beside rivers and canals.
Biking in the Tiergarten, a large downtown park.
What would you like to see improve here?
Before parking was an issue for cars and now it’s a problem for bikes. So why doesn’t the capital have one parking deck for cyclists?
Is bike theft much of an issue here? It seems like a lot of times people just lock the wheel of the bike to the frame. Someone could just pick up the bike and walk off with it.
Oh, I wouldn´t do that. There are enough bike thieves. With my Pashley Guv’nor here I always take care.